It was a pleasure to watch some of my favorite Bay Area artists and director doing their best work at the Aurora Theatre’s West Coast premiere of Lucy Kirkwood’s “The Children.” This three-person drama is about the reunion of nuclear scientists in the aftermath of a nuclear power station meltdown, which had been triggered by an earthquake and tsunami, à la the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. In less than two hours (sans intermission), this three-person drama packs its own brand of radioactivity, but it’s personal and political, not physical.
The nuclear physicists worked together at the recently destroyed facility along the coast of England, and the three have (ostensibly) not seen each other in 38 years. Now Rose (Anne Darragh, “Our Practical Heaven,” “A Delicate Balance”) arrives uninvited at the rudimentary cottage, just outside the disaster’s “exclusion zone,” where the now-retired married couple, husband Robin (James Carpenter, “American Buffalo,” “John Gabriel Borkman,” “The Birthday Party”) and wife Hazel (Julie Eccles, “A Flea in Her Ear”) reside. What has brought Rose back to England after her extended stay in the U. S., and what she wants from the couple isn’t revealed until the tad-too-late climax of the play — one I didn’t see coming.
The tension caused by Rose’s visit is palpable, especially in the initial conversation between Rose and Hazel. Praiseworthy director Barbara Damashek (“Creditors,” “A Number,” “Splendour,” “The Lyons”) allows the conversation to proceed realistically, with natural interruptions, hesitations, and halting fits and starts. Hazel’s hands stay nervously busy throughout.
In an insightful piece of writing by playwright Lucy Kirkwood (“Chimera”), Hazel chillingly describes the moment she first became aware of the earthquake, a sensation we in the Bay Area know well. The eggs Hazel had been using to make banana bread for her grandchildren started shaking in their carton, and she briefly wondered if they were hatching.
Rose’s and Hazel’s catching-up is interspersed with intimations of long-ago jealousy and tension about their different life choices. Rose, never married and childless, is a smoker, while Hazel, the mother of four, is a habitual exerciser and healthful eater.
The patina of civility continues when Hazel’s husband, Robin, enters. But when Robin and Rose are alone, it is evident that the two have been in touch, but when, how often, and under what circumstances are left a bit vague. The obvious conclusion is that Rose has come to rekindle her relationship with Robin, but playwright Lucy Kirkwood has a broader agenda.
That agenda makes “The Children” a much more exciting and thought-provoking piece of theater. Rose is determined that her generation of scientists take responsibility for the disaster. Rose tells Robin that “we can’t have everything we want just because we want it,” recognizing that there is a price to pay for everything we do. Is the scientists’ generation the childish one, or the adult one who must fix what they broke?
“The Children” is not a perfect play, but the marvelous performances, skilled direction, and the philosophical and moral questions about what one generation owes to subsequent ones lead me to give it a high recommendation.
By Emily S. Mendel
©Emily S. Mendel 2020 All Rights Reserved